Bacterial membrane vesicles, an overlooked environmental colloid: Biology, environmental perspectives and applications

Adv Colloid Interface Sci. 2015 Dec;226(Pt A):65-77. doi: 10.1016/j.cis.2015.08.013. Epub 2015 Sep 4.


Phospholipid vesicles play important roles in biological systems. Bacteria are one of the most abundant organisms on Earth, and bacterial membrane vesicles (MVs) were first observed 50 years ago. Many bacteria release MVs to the environment that mainly consist of the cell membrane and typically range from 20 to 400 nm in size. Bacterial MVs are involved in several biological functions, such as delivery of cargo, virulence and gene transfer. MVs can be isolated from laboratory culture and directly from the environment, indicating their high abundance in and impact on ecosystems. Many colloidal particles in the environment ranging in size from 1 nm to 1 μm have been reported but not characterized at the molecular level, and MVs remain to be explored. Hence, MVs can be considered terra incognita in environmental colloid research. Although MV biogenesis and biological roles are yet to be fully understood, the accumulation of knowledge has opened new avenues for their applications. Via genetic engineering, the MV yield can be greatly increased, and the components of MVs can be tailored. Recent studies have demonstrated that MVs have promising potential for applications such as drug delivery systems and nanobiocatalysts. For instance, MV vaccines have been extensively studied and have already been approved in Europe. Recent MV studies have evoked great interest in the fields of biology and biotechnology, but fundamental questions, such as their transport in the environment or physicochemical features of MVs, remain to be addressed. In this review, we present the current understanding of bacterial MVs and environmental perspectives and further introduce their applications.

Keywords: Bacteria; Biotechnology; Membrane vesicle; Nanobiocatalysts; Nanotechnology.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Bacteria / cytology*
  • Cell Membrane / metabolism*
  • Colloids
  • Environment*
  • Humans


  • Colloids